With the Panorama 2 ($2,200 list), Bowers & Wilkins has refined what audiophiles may consider to be a dubious concept: the high-end soundbar. You could easily question whether it makes sense to spend more than two grand on a single speaker, when you could outfit your room with a top-notch 5.1 system with surround speakers and a dedicated receiver for the same money. But the Panorama 2 is aimed at the listener who wants the best sound possible in a single, beautiful box, and doesn’t have the room (or the aesthetic tolerance) for separate components. The Panorama 2 sounds great with movies, with surprisingly spacious left-center-right imaging. But it’s not particularly convincing surround-wise, and its slightly colored midrange performance messes with some on-screen voices and puts a damper on using the Panorama 2 as a music playback system.
Design, Connectivity, and Remote
The Panorama 2 is beautifully crafted, with a gently curved outer enclosure that has no seams. The look is clean, minimalist, and understated. It measures 5 by 44 by 7.24 inches (HWD) and weighs 31.1 pounds. It’s much heavier than low-end soundbars we’ve tested, like the Editors’ Choice Sony HT-CT260. And it’s quite a bit wider and deeper, too, by at least several inches. The mirror black, stainless steel skin and black steel mesh grille exude class and sophistication; no one is going to look at this thing and think “cheap.”
Bowers & Wilkins packages two sets of four screw-on feet in the box; the sets are of different heights, and help you get just the right placement. You can also mount the Panorama 2 to a wall. Around back, and unlike the first Panorama model, the Panorama 2 supports HDMI switching with three inputs and one output. There’s also a subwoofer output, a 3.5mm analog and digital combination input, and a second, analog-only 3.5mm input. Unfortunately, there’s no support for AirPlay or Bluetooth wireless streaming, so you can’t use the soundbar as a straight wireless stereo system for your iPhone or Android smartphone, at least without plugging in a wire.
The revised display now includes a proximity sensor; simply wave your hand in front of the display, and it will light up. Sure, Bang & Olufsen has been doing this sort of thing for years, but it never gets old. The display doesn’t help all that much, though; while it features touch capacitive buttons for Volume, Surround Mode, and Mute, and features a hardware Power button below, there’s no visible volume indicator. More than once, I started playing a scene without realizing the input was incorrect; even after pressing the Volume button down several times, I’d switch to the correct input and then get blown out of my chair.
The Panorama 2 can display an on-screen menu, but you can only see it via an HDMI connection, not over coaxial or optical digital. I found it’s worth hooking up this way, though; click the Menu button on the remote, and you’ll see many more adjustments for sound EQ, room setup, and tuning, in addition to visual feedback for all settings. You can customize the EQ for how far away you are sitting, whether you’re to the left or right of the soundbar, and how far the soundbar is from the left and right walls, sometimes in one foot increments.
The remote control is a bit of a disappointment. It’s basically the same unit we saw with the Zeppelin Air. It’s not backlit, is made of glossy black plastic, and the individual buttons let out a cheap clicky sound with each press. Worse, it’s tough to tell if it’s upside down when you pick it up without looking, unless you feel around for the little indentation on the back; I tried muting the sound once and accidentally turned the Panorama 2 off. For $2,200, the remote should be better.
Performance and Conclusions
The Panorama 2 supports Dolby Digital and DTS surround encoding, and also features an all-new array of tweeters, midrange, and low-frequency drivers. There are two 1-inch metal dome tweeters, two 3-inch midrange drivers, two 3.5-inch subwoofer drivers, and four 3-inch surround channel drivers. A 50-watt amplifier drives the two subwoofer cones, while five 25-watt amplifiers handle the rest. In standby mode, the Panorama 2 is rated to consume just half a watt.
We tested the system with the $500 Oppo BDP-103, our current Editors’ Choice for high-end Blu-ray players. In Tron: Legacy, the flight and game scenes rang true, with crisp, stunning sound effects and beautiful separation in the front virtual channels. Rear-channel effects were a bit less convincing, though; discs flying by went sort of “up” instead of behind the chair the way proper surround speakers would. Sometimes, dialog from the movie sounded smooth and natural, with excellent dispersion. Other times, various actors sounded oddly distorted at higher volumes—not as if the entire Panorama 2 system was physically distorting, but as if something in the digital surround processing is driving the signal too hard.
With music, the Panorama 2 was also a mixed bag. The unit certainly sounds huge, with plenty of volume and punch. But there’s also an overly prominent midrange, with too much low-mid emphasis that makes a mess of electric guitars, sending them too far forward in Rage Against the Machine’s “Fistful of Steel.” Putting the Panorama 2 in stereo mode helps considerably, of course, but the midrange emphasis is still there. In Muse’s “Resistance,” the surround mode separated the backing vocals from the lead vocal nicely in the song’s chorus, but the reverberant drums were a little hazy in both surround and standard stereo modes, and the bass guitar sounded too prominent in the mix compared with the rest of the instruments.
None of these flaws are fatal, incidentally. Anyone casually walking into the room and hearing the Panorama 2 would be impressed at its clarity, volume, and dynamics; it’s clearly a cut above soundbars with a three-digit price tag. And while certain kinds of music and sound effects give away the Panorama 2′s lack of a discrete subwoofer, other scenes have plenty of weight and just enough rumble to simulate a real home theater.
Really, the problem is the jaw-dropping price. At $2,200, Bowers & Wilkins is targeting a specific discerning audiophile customer, and this is where the Panorama 2 runs into trouble. At this price level, the Panorama should be just as good at music as it is at movie and TV sound, as if it were an oversized, more-capable Zeppelin Air, and it falls short of that mark. Meanwhile, home theater enthusiasts looking for the best possible sound at this price can do significantly better with separate components, passive speakers, and a powered subwoofer from a range of companies like Paradigm, NHT, PSB, or of course B&W’s own excellent line of speakers.
If you don’t mind a soundbar with a small, wireless, powered subwoofer, the Harman Kardon SB 30 sounds great with both music and movies and costs less than half of what the Panorama 2 does, although it doesn’t look as nice or get quite as loud. But if you have the means, don’t have the room for the extra components, and still want movies to sound larger than life, the Panorama 2 delivers the goods.
More Speaker Reviews:
|Wireless Remote Control||Yes|
|Power Rating (Left and Right, Each)||25 watts RMS per channel|
|Power Rating (Center Unit)||25 watts RMS|
|Power Rating (Left and Right Rear Satellites, Each)||25 watts RMS|
|Type||Home Theater, Soundbar|
|Power Rating (Subwoofer)||50 watts RMS per channel|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc